A Contemporary Understanding of Virtue

The virtue project

In the spring and summer of 2009 I undertook a project to develop a contemporary understanding of virtue.  I wanted to explore the causes of the financial crisis and what we, as a society could do about it.  As a result, I interviewed 30 people, all of whom are leaders in their field.  The fields ranged from neuro-science and psychology, to the arts, sciences and religion of all faiths.  I honestly don't know what to do with the hours of tape and pages of transcripts other than publish some of the summaries here and be thankful that it led me to founding Virtuousbread.com.

The fight to change society must be fought at many levels from the policy/governmental level to the institutional level to the individual level.  I get up every day to change the world and always have done so. Until early 2010 I was absolutely up for fighting the fight at the institutional level, working with senior executives at some of the world's biggest financial institutions.   I believe if organisations are better run, more humane, and led by more enlightened people, staff will be able to "bring more of themselves" to work, resulting in more creativity, more energy, and better results for all.  Today, however, my appetite has changed and I am content to let someone else fight at that level for a bit.  Today I choose to get up every day to fight the fight at the level of the individual - with bread as my medium.

Virtue is bread and bread is virtue

Bread, as the representation of goodness and life, is an excellent catalyst for social change.  All that could be good and much that is bad is all there in a simple loaf of bread.  Bread is so much more than the sum of its parts.  You cannot eat flour or salt or yeast on their own, even in small quantities.  Yet together, they make one of the cheapest and potentially most nourishing of foods:  the building block and the basic for most people around the world.  Good bread is the end product of a good process that involves responsible farming, milling, baking, and distribution.  It can be made with minimal negative impact on the planet and, if good quality, will benefit individuals and, as a result, society as a whole.  I believe you can build relationships through baking and breaking bread.  Virtuousbread.com was founded to make it fun and easy for people to bake bread and to provide information so that they can make their own choices.

In the fight for this earth, I have decided to leave the glory of war to those who are prepared to fight on those terms.  For now I have put down my sword and my shield.  Today, I am the one in the Mata Hari outfit, handing out buns.

But, what is virtue:

Virtue is the set of behaviours we observe when people are developing and maintaining productive and positive relationships in which people feel supported and valued, enabling them to:
-         forge productive and positive relationships with others in their lives – including strangers
-         feel confident and positive that what they do and who they are is worthwhile which means they will do it better, with more energy and enthusiasm, and take more personal risks, thus making an even greater contribution to the world around them.

Because nobody is perfect, the core of virtuous behaviour is the cycle of apology and forgiveness that enables us to recover from hurtful (non virtuous) experiences and build long term relationships.  I would argue that something like giving money to charity on line, although a good act, and a generous one,  is not a virtuous one.  By definition, virtue can only exist when we are interacting with others.

“Being or seeing virtue” – benefits

Marketeers talk about three categories of benefit they must communicate to an end consumer in order to get them to buy their products.  The three categories of benefit include rational, (the message that communicates the science that proves the car is safe) emotional (the message that communicates that you will feel comfortable driving your children around in this car because it is safe), and self expressive (the message that communicates that people will think you are a good parent, having bought this safe car).  If we want to embed virtue in society we have to accept we are asking people to change some of their behaviours.  In order to do this we have to understand and communicate "what's in it for them" - in other words, the benefits.

There are rational benefits of being more virtuous:  if I do good things it forwards my cause.  Example:  I sit on a board of a charity.  I earn nothing.  I meet people who further my career.  Example:  I am really friendly to the lady who runs the canteen.  I forget my purse one day.  She trusts me to pay her the next day.  Etc.

There are emotional benefits of being more virtuous:  if I do good things I feel good.  It gives me a sense of wellbeing and that builds my confidence and happiness.  Neurologically we know that these emotions are “real” ie the chemicals in the brain change when we make positive connections with other people:  we sleep better, we are more patient, we are kinder, etc.  We are happier.

There are self expressive benefits of being more virtuous: if I do good things, people will think I am a good person because what I see reflected back at me when I do good things is that I am a good person.

How do we embed virtue?

Embedding virtue more widely in our society is a matter of both individual and institutional responsibility.

Individuals can build virtuous relationships with other people all the time:  thanking the bus driver, greeting the person who sells them their coffee every day, acknowledging when a stranger is considerate, or helping strangers who are, for example, lost on the road.  In doing so they make the other person feel good about themselves and that can only be a positive thing.  Individuals can also decide to be kinder, more courteous and considerate to their most intimate circle.  Relationship counselling is ultimately aimed at helping heal relationships in trouble by breaking bad habits and creating good ones.  On a more existential level, many of the people I interviewed felt that individuals should engage in the discipline of taking a break every day just to “be”.  To spend 5 minutes alone with no phone or e mail or anything at all just to contemplate the world and be actively glad of all the good things in it:  a little meditative moment which provides the opportunity to "re-group".  This is a big ask, even if it seems simple.

Leaders in institutions have a responsibility to role model virtuous behaviour by treating people well in their institutions on a day to day basis, by “doing good things” and communicating them (blog/company website/company magazine) and by creating opportunities for their employees to be virtuous by:

1. linking the institution with good works – giving to charity, sponsoring charities/individuals to do charitable things (matching donations for marathon runners, etc)

2. creating a virtuous culture in the organization with clear standards regarding how people interact with one another, with clear values that are reviewed, measured and, therefore, implemented

3.  creating opportunities for their staff to “do good things” outside of work such as give everyone half a day per quarter to volunteer for the charity of their choice and give one month off every three years to work for a charity at half pay

4.  making it a lot easier for staff to take individual responsibility by publishing, on their corporate website, charity events in which staff can participate – like the marathon, or balls, parties, competitions where the proceeds to go good causes.  They can also pay for the criminal check that is required to work with vulnerable people

5. using their own networks to get interested and qualified staff on boards of charities as NEDs and thus provide staff with valuable outside management experience which will contribute hugely to their experience and performance at work

The data sources

The people interviewed to develop a contemporary understanding of virtue include academics, psychologists, artists, politicians, business people, journalists, and spiritual leaders.  Some were happy to be named and some were not.  All of them are fascinating.  The words above are a summary of the work done about virtue to date.

In 2009, in response to the financial crisis, I set about interviewing 30 luminaries to develop a contemporary understanding of virtue.  As a strategy consultant I was working with companies whose employees changed overnight from confident leaders to frightened employees.  Monday's change agent was Tuesday's trouble maker:  people felt they needed to keep their heads down and avoid being noticed if they were going to keep their jobs.  The creative energy that companies need in a time of crisis was being withheld out of fear.

Column inches were dedicated to analysing the causes of the financial crisis.  However, when push came to shove, it was about greed and envy.  Greedy and unscrupulous sales people preying on ignorance, selling things to people that they never should have bought.  Envious and foolish consumers making purchases they could ill afford.  If greed and envy got us into this mess maybe virtue could get us out.  However, we need to make it easier for people to talk about virtue in order to embed it into society at large.  In order to do this, we need to quantify the benefit, answering the question, "what's in it for us"?

Read more about...

Kindness and how it begets love

The languages of lack and longing

The importance of self soothing for mental health

The surprising silver bullet for corporate innovation

Generosity of spirit - the true sign of success

If you would like to read summaries of some of the interviews please click on the list to the left.

If you would like to participate please contact us.

5 Responses to “A Contemporary Understanding of Virtue”

  1. Hilary Cooper

    21. Jun, 2011

    Dear Jane,
    I've just watched your breadmaking videos and then found my way to your page on virtue. I'm fascinated! What you say in the concluding paragraphs about the stranglehold of greed and envy rings true for me. I see how, in the school where I work, people act daily out of fear - afraid of being singled out as a trouble-maker or taking risks which might lead to financial loss. Creativity and joy are stifled. We become a bunch of docile nodding donkeys.

    I'll be very interested to see where this leads. The big question for me is: does anyone REALLY want to know - or do anything about it? Because it seems to me that, once you are 'in the system', you have to play by the rules or the System spits you out.

    Hilary

  2. virtuousbread

    21. Jun, 2011

    Dear Hilary, thank you for that thoughtful and honest comment. I wish I knew the answers to your questions. I worked for years with leadership teams and in the end felt I was not getting anywhere making them more humane. It starts with leaders. If the leaders of your school embedded a more caring and less fearing culture everything would be different. The problem is that you cannot mandate caring. I think we can strive to be individuals within the system but agree that the system can be overwhelming....

    Kind regards, Jane

  3. Noelle Mace

    12. Dec, 2014

    I got through to your presentation on Virtue as a result of joining the book of buns baking forum on facebook. I am so pleased to be able to read your thoughts and findings and totally agree on your premise of 'being and seeing virtue'. I have used and continue to use 'virtue' as a basis for all my actions. I also feel that 'good behaviour' by this I mean 'virtuous behaviour' is catching, on the whole. Maybe not straight away, but in time it does positively touch others. The converse spoils both the person/organisation and others they come across. When I was in business and Head of Personnel, I used this continually, and there was not one single case brought to tribunal. That's not to mean that I did not have to do battle with Directors, but I always tried to have a win win situation. Thanks again.

  4. virtuousbread

    17. Dec, 2014

    Dear Noelle

    thanks for this comment. it's heartening to hear from you as when I started the virtue project everyone thought I was nuts and was not interested in what I was finding and what I had to say! I even asked the RSA (of which I am a fellow) if I could do a short talk on my research and they said no on the basis it was not relevant! Now, of course, we know this is a hot topic! In any case, I love to read your words and to know that there are other voices out there! Jane

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